Eight years ago, Alejandro Santos lost his only child and he has been just barely surviving ever since. The loss ended his marriage and has left Alejandro almost paralyzed with grief. His obsessive compulsive disorder makes it even worse, as his brain circles around the trauma, unable to break free and move forward. The one bit of happiness Alejandro allows himself is Avery Marshak. A year ago, he saw the college student shivering at a car wash and made him an offer: Avery would be Alejandro’s sugar baby, available to him whenever Alejandro called, and never sleeping with anyone else. Alejandro is so drawn to the beautiful young man, but his continued grief is too much to allow himself to have Avery for more than just dinner company.
Avery was a struggling college student and took the deal Alejandro offered. He had hoped that in addition to the much-needed money, he would also get the company of the very handsome Alejandro. But while Alejandro showers Avery with gifts, including a fancy apartment and a new car, he never touches Avery, and barely even talks to him. They meet for dinner and Avery provides a constant stream of chatter, but he is lucky if Alejandro even responds, let alone engages in conversation. And Avery’s dreams of sex with the handsome man die with the realization that Alejandro won’t even touch him, not even platonically. Now, a year later, Avery has come to care deeply for Alejandro, but he is also starving for affection, for attention, for simple touch. As much as he has grown to care for Alejandro, this isn’t working.
Alejandro knows he cares deeply for Avery, but he also knows his own grief is too consuming to ever give Avery the love and attention he deserves, and he should end things between them. But with Avery alone for the holidays, Alejandro can’t bear to let him go without giving him a little something. So he invites Avery to spend Chanukah in his apartment with him. Alejandro knows it is dangerous for his heart. Avery does too. Neither man believes there can be anything more, but when they finally give in to their attraction, things explode between them. Suddenly, each man is seeing what could be between them. But Alejandro is still not sure if he is ready to move forward, and Avery worries his heart will be broken when Alejandro lets him go. After a year together, the men have finally found that true connection, but now they have to figure out if it is something they can keep.
Heartbeat Repeating is a beautiful story of a man moving forward in the face of incredible grief and loss. The pain Alejandro feels at his daughter’s death is still so raw and he is unable to see beyond the intense grief. It not only led to the end of his marriage and prevented him from moving forward with other relationships, it has also left him feeling so broken. E.M. Lindsey captures that grief so well here, and it is painful and powerful, and ultimately so rewarding when we see Alejandro slowly begin to find his way forward. Not that being with Avery is a magic solution or cure, but Alejandro slowly starts to test his limits so he can be with Avery and realizes that his walls are lower than he thought. I assume it’s obvious here, but just in case: this story deals with profound grief surrounding the death of a child. While it occurred eight years before, and we are seeing more of the aftermath than the initial emotions, tread carefully if this is a sensitive area for you.
Part of what makes it all so hard for Alejandro is he is dealing with some pretty severe OCD that makes his brain cycle and spiral and got locked down in ways it’s hard to handle. Things get caught up in his head and he can’t easily break free of them, and so the grief just settles there. Lindsey does a nice job here with this part of the story (they are an own voices author for this condition), showing how the grief and OCD sort of exacerbate one another. Wanting Avery and being with him give Alejandro that desire to push just a bit. And when he does, he realizes he is comfortable with more than he thinks.
I really enjoyed Avery and Alejandro together. They are so sweet, but also so passionate with one another. As much as Avery needed the money, that is not why he is with Alejandro now. He truly cares for him and wants something real. And Alejandro is so sweet in his desire for Avery, but he fears he is not good for him. The only issue I had here is that I had some trouble with the transition from the first part of the story focused on the previous year and then the second part where the men are together for the holiday. As the past is described, the men had regular dinners, etc where Avery talked and Alejandro listened. Avery describes Alejandro as never touching him, rarely responding to anything he says, and barely acknowledging him in any way. Avery doesn’t really care about the expensive gifts, so he isn’t starry eyed over the money. But at the same time, he is in love with Alejandro and it was hard for me to see where this comes from given the complete one-sidedness of their relationship (aside from finances). I could get Alejandro being charmed by Avery, as he carries the entire burden of conversation and interaction, but what beyond attractiveness does Avery get from Alejandro in this early part of their relationship? I also wanted a better idea of what changed for Alejandro. We do see some interactions that clearly have given him some food for thought and impact his actions, but I still would have liked more clarity here as to what makes now the time to move forward. Once the men are living together for the holiday and Alejandro starts to let down his walls, the pair really blossom together. But there was a little disconnect for me early on that took a while to get past.
This is also a Chanukah story and, while the holiday plays a fairly minor role in story, I liked the way it was incorporated. Chanukah stories are so rare in this genre and they are often very focused on the holiday and the observance in a way that isn’t how many Jews actually celebrate — this isn’t a Jewish Christmas. So I liked that Avery teaches Alejandro the traditions and the history of the holiday, and how we see that it is important to Avery to share these things, but there is a subtly here that I liked. The traditional story of Chanukah is about the miracle of the oil lasting for eight nights when it should only have been enough for one. Whether this is historically accurate, the message is that there is always hope, things can be better than they appear, and even at the darkest time there can be light. And so I think that is a perfect message here to tie into this story as we watch Alejandro start off feeling like he is at the bottom, but getting that glimmer of hope that builds into more.